Wong Kar-wai’s “2046” is a film at war with itself. On the one hand its complicated structure demands the highest degree of attention. On the other, its luxurious images and stately progress lull the viewer almost inevitably into a state of drowsiness. The combination is at best problematic.
The title has a double meaning in the film itself and another beyond it. It refers to the room number in a seedy Hong Kong hotel occupied by a succession of women wooed by the resident of the room next door, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). Chow is the same character played by Leung in Wong’s “In the Mood for Love,” but he’s changed over time. The impassioned lover and aspiring writer of the early 1960s in that earlier film has become a cynical, world-weary ladies’ man and gambler who also scribbles stories for pulp magazines. And in the course of the chronologically fractured narrative of this new installment, we see him involved with no fewer than six women, some very briefly (including Maggie Cheung, from “Love”) but others at greater length–Su (Gong Li), a hardbitten gambler herself; Wang (Faye Wong), the daughter of the hotelier; Bai (Zhang Ziyi), a prostitute; and Lulu (Carina Lau Ka Ling), a footloose girl. But the number also refers to the date in the future, which is the title of a book being written by Chow; loosely based on Wang’s affair with a Japanese suitor of whom her father disapproves, it involves a man named Tak (Takuya Kimura) who travels by train to 2046, the haven of lost memories, and tries to persuade his lover there, a female robot called wjw 1967 (the date of the “real” movie’s action) to return to the “present” with him. But she refuses, just as Su had rejected Chow’s invitation to move with him from Singapore to Hong Kong. What ties the two sections of the film together are the overarching themes of lost love, the regret that follows, and the impossibility of recapturing the past–the emotions that Chow experiences repeatedly in his own life and tries to express in his story. 2046 also happens to be, of course, the year when Hong Kong will finally be integrated into mainland China, and so the title also suggests that then the memory of its previous existence as a British possession will fade and its unique character will disappear, just as Tak’s attempt to reclaim his erstwhile lover fails.
Wong’s film is thus, like “In the Mood for Love,” a reverie on longing, but it suggests that the longing can never be fulfilled because of its necessary impermanence. And it certainly makes one feel the ache of Chow’s loss by presenting each of the women in his life so stunningly that they seem like genuine screen goddesses. Their appearance is just one aspect of the remarkable beauty that permeates every frame of the picture, exquisitely appointed as it is by production designer/costumer William Chang and art director Alfred Yau, and shot in creamy, glistening tones by cinematographers Christopher Doyle, Lai Yiu-fai and Kwan Pun-leung. But while “2046” looks absolutely radiant, its deliberately choppy structure and mannered style make it very heavy going. (The futuristic sequences are especially intrusive, and aren’t really needed to get Wong’s point across.) Apart from Zhang, moreover–who benefits from the fact that she enjoys a nearly uninterrupted half-hour stretch that allows for greater expressiveness–the actors are treated more like beautiful mannequins than human beings–Leung and Gong Li suffer most in that respect and Wong least, but no one else matches Zhang.
The end result is that “2046” is an artifact of astonishing beauty but frustrating content. Its woozy, voluptuous atmosphere dazzles the eye but blurs the vision and dulls the brain; the experience of seeing it is rather like watching a brilliant paint job dry in a rainstorm. At one point in it Chow is posed with his pen poised to write, but is struck by a mental block. “One hour later,” a title reads, cutting back to the immobile pen. “Ten hours later,” comes a second title, followed by the same shot. “100 hours later” reads a third, the pen still hovering over the page. That little sequence encapsulates how this whole movie often feels–like a ethereally lovely butterfly eternally encased in the crystalline glow of amber. It may be a beautiful sight, but after a while one tires of looking at it.